It is impossible to know whether the economic cost of the new coronavirus tiers system in England will be greater than that of taking no action, a government analysis has concluded, arguing instead that allowing the NHS to be overwhelmed would be “intolerable for our society”.
The 48-page document, released in response to demands from Conservative MPs threatening to vote down the tiers plan in the Commons on Tuesday, cites modelling suggesting that the top tier of restrictions lasting to the spring would cause an 11.3% drop in real GDP.
But in a section about what would happen to the economy if limited or no action is taken and coronavirus cases start to rise exponentially again, the document says it is “not possible to know with any degree of confidence”.
The report seemingly contains no new data, instead citing existing statistics and forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, the Office for National Statistics and other bodies.
Arguing that the new tiers are needed to get the R number below one, the document notes that limited restrictions would “allow many people and businesses to operate as normal, if they chose to do so.”
It adds: “On the other hand, more widespread infections and the consequences of pressure on the NHS would affect spending in the economy due to voluntary social distancing, effects to confidence and impacts on businesses, including through high levels of employee sickness.
“Given the unprecedented nature of both the virus and the restrictions that have been required to mitigate it, it is not possible to assess the balance of these effects.”
Instead, the analysis primarily argues in favour of the tiers on public health grounds, saying that a failure to control the R number would swamp hospitals, putting at risk the lives of not just Covid patients but others, and would lead to routine operations being cancelled.
It cites scientific estimates that on 1 October, infection numbers were doubling every 8 to 14 days, and growing even faster in some areas.
“It is particularly important to consider this eventuality during the winter months, when the NHS is under additional non-Covid -19 winter pressures, so in comparison to the spring and summer periods, action to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed is even more critical.
“A stable and fully functioning health system is one of the pillars that underpins our society and our economy. The government’s view is that the severe loss of life and other health impacts of allowing the NHS to be overwhelmed would be intolerable for our society.”
It remains to be seen whether this satisfies the rebel Conservatives, who are believed to number up to 70. Several have asked for assurance that the benefits of imposing the new tiers will be greater than the costs.
If many Tory MPs rebel, the government could need to rely on Labour MPs backing the plans, or at least abstaining.
The Tory MP Mark Harper, who chairs the Covid Recovery Group of MPs sceptical about the pandemic restrictions, said he was disappointed at the delay in publishing the data but said MPs mulling whether to vote against the tiers plan would decide on Tuesday before the vote.
“I am disappointed MPs, journalists and the public have been given so little time to digest information of this magnitude,” he said. “We are, after all, talking about imposing some of the most severe restrictions on our constituents and the way they lead their lives and run their businesses. This information is what ministers should have been insisting on before they made their decisions, so it surely could have been made available earlier.
“As I have said before, I and a number of colleagues are particularly keen to understand the likely impact of the restrictions on Covid and the full extent of some of the non-Covid health implications they have, as well as the undoubted impact on livelihoods. So we will read and analyse this data tonight and report back on our findings later tomorrow.”
The report says the complexities of the spread of Covid and any actions to mitigate it mean it is “not possible to know” exactly what would happen in different circumstances, adding: “Any assessment of a given change to restrictions is therefore unavoidably only partial in nature.”